Beyond the Cuts: The Evolution of Sexual Scenes & Censorship in Indian Cinema

As the new season of Netflix’s “Lust Stories” approaches, we analyze the tapestry of desire and taboos, that hid behind the veil of censorship and mob protests for all these years. We embark on this journey through time where we delve into the boundaries that have been pushed, challenged, and ultimately redefined.

Introduction

Censorship in India has taken various forms over the years. From politics and religion to sexual activity being shown, the cuts and changes that the Indian censor board has made have been questioned and scrutinized, turning it into a matter of heavy debate among film watchers and the industry.

Cinema has long been an integral part of the public’s daily existence, destined to endure for ages to come. From local audiences worshipping movie posters to celebrities gracing public events to promote their films and engage with fans, the film industry has always left a mark on people.

Origins, Morality, and Restrictive Measures

While explicit or steamy scenes were uncommon in cinema until the mid-2000s, the film industry has consistently employed sexual innuendos and suggestive gestures to imply or allude to sexual content.

For years, the on-screen intimacy was restricted to the infamous “neck kissing” or even simply just scenes of doors closing and flowers moving in an attempt to subtly inform the audiences that the characters are involving themselves in some frivolous behavior out of the viewer’s sight.

Censorship in India exists for various reasons. Films are censored to avoid conflict and controversy or to “protect the youth” as they are the primary consumers of media in today’s time. While censorship is necessary to protect minors from potential harm, it also puts a restraint on creative freedom and diversity.

For the longest time, discussing sex let alone depicting any explicit sex on the screen was a highly contentious matter, instantly leading to an instant question about the film team’s dignity.

The Cinematograph Act, of 1952 was initially introduced by the British in their efforts to suppress the spread of information through newspapers and films following the heartbreaking Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

However, amidst their pursuit of political control, moral deliberations were intertwined into the act, resulting in the ban on nudity. It is worth noting that a narrow exception was made, allowing the depiction of bare breasts in documentaries about “primitive” communities, fueled by discriminatory beliefs that they could not be seen or depicted as equals.

Navigating the Shifting Landscape

Over time, just like any other idea and concept, the concept of what was moral and what could be shown on screen has also evolved. Pre-marital sex or kisses on the lips is no longer uncommon and is a staple in most shows and films aired today, so much so that the dynamic has shifted from “scared to talk about sex” to “too much sex”.

Female Sexuality

The contradictory approach toward female sexuality in cinema raises perplexing questions. It provokes contemplation on how films can freely depict women dressed in revealing attire, dancing to cater to the male gaze while being addressed using the most random objects, while simultaneously deeming movies that aim to shed light on female sexual repression as immoral.

Historically, societal norms and cultural beliefs have often perpetuated the idea that men can openly express desire and pursue sexual encounters, while women are expected to adhere to more restrictive roles and face judgment for exhibiting similar behaviours.

Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978) garnered significant attention for its daring portrayal of Zeenat Aman and her provocative attire, which was deemed scandalous during that era. The film faced criticism for its portrayal of female sexuality; however, it triumphed at the box office and has since attained a revered status as a cult classic in Indian cinema.

The Evolution of Sexual Scenes & Censorship in Indian Cinema

Still from the film; Image Source: IMDB

Censorship or even showing sex scenes, however, seem to have a separate level of appropriateness, apart from the film’s rating. Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016), directed by Alankrita Shrivastava was banned from theatres for the very same thing it was meant to promote, women’s sexual liberation and freedom.

Parched (2016), featuring Radhika Apte, stirred controversy with its bold portrayal of sexuality and women’s empowerment. The movie delved into the uncharted territory of unfulfilled desires and the struggles faced by rural women. Controversy ensued due to explicit scenes of female nudity and sexual content, leading conservative groups to demand its ban.

Fire (1996), made cinematic history as the first Indian movie to explicitly portray a same-sex love story. The film revolves around two sexually unfulfilled marriages that ultimately lead to a blossoming romantic relationship between two women. Despite the backlash, the film stands as a significant milestone in Indian cinema, bravely addressing LGBTQ+ themes and contributing to the awareness and understanding of queer issues.

The Start of Change

Indeed, the 1933 film Karma holds the distinction of being the first Indian film to feature a kissing scene. The scene depicted a kiss between the lead actors, Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai. This pioneering moment in Indian cinema broke new ground, setting the stage for the gradual evolution and inclusion of intimate scenes in films that followed.

The Evolution of Sexual Scenes & Censorship in Indian Cinema

Still from the film; Image Source: Wikipedia

Filmmaker Raj Kapoor introduced a notable shift often featuring them in swimsuits or wet sarees in an attempt to show them in a more desirable light. Kapoor also broke barriers by incorporating onscreen kissing scenes in his films, such as Bobby (1973) and Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978). His daring choices challenged the prevailing norms and played a significant role in shaping the evolution of sexual depictions in Indian cinema.

As time progressed, a rising number of directors began reintroducing kissing scenes onscreen, although it remained relatively uncommon during the 1990s. Raja Hindustani, released in 1996, can be considered another influential film that played a role in bringing sexual intimacy back to Bollywood. The movie featured a long and sensual kiss between the lead actors, Aamir Khan and Karishma Kapoor, which served as a trendsetter and marked a notable departure from the prevailing conservative approach towards onscreen romance at that time.

Evolving Times

The production of mature content on online streaming platforms has witnessed significant growth, targeting an 18+ audience. While this surge in explicit content might suggest a shift towards greater comfort and openness about sex and sexuality in India, a closer examination reveals that these shows often reinforce regressive stereotypes.

Key themes and plots in these adult shows prioritize explicit depictions and capturing attention rather than meaningful storytelling. The dialogue and screenplay rely heavily on cliched euphemisms, implying that sex is something to be hinted at rather than discussed openly and maturely.

Character depictions in mature content often play into traditional dichotomies, portraying women as either bold and urban or demure village girls. Consequently, the content is seen catering to a male audience, further perpetuating existing gender biases.

However, there is a nascent parallel narrative that presents a more authentic and diverse depiction of mature topics. This emerging trend features sexually liberated women, open acceptance and portrayal of sex without voyeurism, and representation of diverse sexualities.

Although this content often generates controversy and polarized opinions, it creates space for challenging preconceived notions and fostering informed conversations without compromising entertainment value.

Some key themes within this emerging narrative include the representation of women creators and actors, explicit portrayals of female sexuality and pleasure, and the exploration of diverse sexual experiences. While this content may still be considered niche, the discomfort it generates helps it gain momentum and carve a niche within the mainstream, opening up possibilities for broader conversations and redefining societal norms surrounding sex and sexuality.

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